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The Sound of the Mountain – Most un-Japanese of Kawabatas

January 31, 2012

The Sound of the Mountain is the most western of all the works of Kawabata. It lacks the haiku-like feeling which Snow Country and Thousand Cranes give. It is the story of a post-war Japanese family undergoing modernization. The story is told from the point of view of a sixty-year old writer who is the head of the family. He has a daughter, Fusako, who has a disastrous marriage and has come back to live with him and a son who has a beautiful wife, for whom Shingo has feelings himself. His son Shuichi is also having an extra-marital affair.

The novel centers on the internal struggle of Shingo regarding his feelings for his daughter-in-law. The sound of the mountain is heard only twice during the novel. It is considered as an evil omen in Japan. Shingo takes it as an omen for the breakup of his overtly calm family, which has otherwise tumultuous inner life. He is struggling against his feelings for his daughter-in-law, while his son is having an affair despite having a beautiful wife at home. His daughter-in-law aborts her baby as a vengeance against her husband. Shingo’s daughter is also a mess and a nuisance for the family.

The Sound of the Mountain is a story of the gradual breaking-up of traditional social order in Japan. In the background there is dismay and the dejection of the defeat in the Second World War. It is a story about a society which is Japanese in externals but is slowly modernizing and westernizing, and with it comes the mental tumult.

It is also a story about the internal struggles of an aged writer who has no spiritual background and who has half spurned the traditional Japan.

As is usual with Kawabata, the novel is sprinkled with talk about art, western and Japanese. It is not like Snow Country or Thousand Cranes but like any Kawabata reader I loved it. Who cares if it is not truly Japanese? Whatever Japan is left in it is good for a fan. And I obviously am a fan of Kawabata.

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